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Topic: Spiritual Formation

Sludge and Sanctification

January 14, 2014

by Steve Watters


It’s the sticky, gooey, too-thick-to-walk-through stuff that floats on polluted, oily water. And it’s the word we use to describe much of our lives as parents.

It’s what we feel walking through our home at the end of the day, as the house that was clean at 6:00 a.m. now feels like the trash compactor scene from Star Wars. Just trying to walk from one room to another, we get the sensation of the mess wrapping itself around our ankles and keeping us from getting anywhere.

But it’s more than just the massive sludge footprint that forms by each day’s end. It’s the constant intrusion into every corner of our adult lives by LEGOs, Matchbox cars, miniature plastic-doll shoes (smaller than our fingernails), and countless stuffed animals.

It’s having to grow used to juice spills, broken toys, pungent diapers, grass stains, and midnight vomit.

It’s conceding our vehicles to candy wrappers, crumbs, Cheerios, free-range sippy cups, and windows clouded by crayon masterpieces.

It’s sharing our favorite chairs with baby dolls, library books, art projects, and old egg cartons that have been transformed into “treasures.”

It’s looking out onto a backyard (that often looks like an exploded toy factory—littered with bikes, scooters, snow boots, basketballs, and missing gloves and mittens) and seeing our grass, dirt, mulch, rocks, and tree leaves mixed into “landscape soup” and then poured out into various surprise locations.

Then there’s the psychological sludge. It’s the stuff that piles up around your heart and mind as you deal with the interruptions, whining, constantly shifting plans, inane children’s programming, sleeplessness, incessant demands, decline in intimacy, and more that come with children.

Over the past eight years, the presence of this sludge has felt like our dirty little secret. In that time, we’ve written articles about having kids and captured notes in the hopes of writing this book  [Start Your Family] some day. As we accumulated insights about the purpose and blessing of children, we continued to struggle with the reality that being a parent is just plain hard.

There are days we’ve faced the perfect sludge storm of mess, whining, disobedience, illness, and other challenges, and in the middle of it all, one of us has asked the other, “Should we really encourage other couples to do this? This is brutal.”

Sometimes it seems there’s just no good explanation or justification for the tedium that you come to know as a parent.

At this point, you might be thinking, “Steve and Candice just don’t know how to train their children.” Or maybe you’re thinking, “They just don’t know about product X or program Y that addresses the problems they’ve described.” Maybe you’re also thinking, “It will be different for our child.”

You might be right. We know we still have room for improvement. And we do wish you the best in training your own children. But we still feel safe predicting that sooner or later, you’ll run into plenty of areas of challenge. We’ve got the backing of Jesus who predicted, “In this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33).

Thankfully we have found that there are things you can do to minimize the sludge—to simplify your home, to work hard at staying on top of cleanup, to keep a lot of wipes on hand, to adjust your expectations, to better train your children, to try to keep a healthy routine, to pray for grace and mercy, and so on. But even when you do all that, you’ll always have the sludge with you to some degree while you’re a parent.

The sludge is unavoidable.

So is it just something you have to endure? Is there some point to it all?

We believe there is. The thing we’ve come to grasp is that we need the sludge. Reflecting on the difficulties of maintaining happiness within family, Gary Thomas observed that maybe God didn’t give us marriage and children to make us happy, but to make us holy. We’ve come to realize that the sludge we encounter works like a crucible—that it generates the state of pain or anguish that tests our resiliency and character.

There are many wonderful concepts of the Christian faith—things like selflessness, patience, sacrifice, and unconditional love—that, to be honest, were little more than good intentions for us before we were tested as parents.

Scriptures abound where God uses affliction, suffering, and trials to refine us. Isaiah 48 talks about being tested in the furnace of affliction. First Peter 1:6–7 talks about rejoicing in trials so that our faith may be proved genuine and “may result in praise, glory and honor.” Romans 5:3–4 talks about rejoicing in sufferings because of the way “suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.”

The truth is, we just didn’t have many opportunities to rejoice in our sufferings before we had kids. We didn’t have the benefit of being tested by a furnace of affliction so that we could grow in our faith. We know many believers have been tested through a variety of afflictions—troubles that grew their faith: through illness, disability, or personal tragedy; through missions; or through ministry to the sick, poor, or imprisoned. It’s easy to see how God uses such dramatic life challenges to accomplish what is difficult to do in easier circumstances. What’s often overlooked is that the inconvenience, annoyance, and frustration of being a parent is the most common venue we have in life to experience the kind of refinement God intends for us all.

For a time, the desire to grow spiritually drew Gary Thomas toward the monkish life. But that was a challenging life to pursue with a wife and children. “Rather than trying to mimic a monk in my marriage,” he says, “I came to realize family was the most spiritually formative aspect of my life.”

“The process of parenting is one of the most spiritually formative journeys a man and a woman can ever undertake,” Thomas writes in his book Sacred Parenting. “Unless we are stone-cold spiritually—virtually spiritual corpses—the journey of caring for, raising, training and loving children will mark us indelibly and powerfully. We cannot be the same people we once were; we will be forever changed, eternally altered. Spiritually speaking, we need to raise children every bit as much as they need us to raise them.”

Taken with permission from Start Your FamilyMoody Publishers, copyright © 2009 by Steve and Candice Watters. All rights reserved. International copyright secured.

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